Great Wall of China – China, Asia
The Great Wall of China is a series of stone and earthen fortifications in northern China, built originally to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire against intrusions by various nomadic groups. Several walls have been built since the 5th century BC that are referred to collectively as the Great Wall, which has been rebuilt and maintained from the 5th century BC through the 16th century. One of the most famous is the wall built between 220–206 BC by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Little of that wall remains; the majority of the existing wall was built during the Ming Dynasty.
The Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. The most comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that all the walls measure 8,851.8 km (5,500.3 mi). This is made up of 6,259.6 km (3,889.5 mi) sections of actual wall, 359.7 km (223.5 mi) of trenches and 2,232.5 km (1,387.2 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.
The Chinese were already familiar with the techniques of wall-building by the time of the Spring and Autumn Period, which began around the 8th century BC. During the Warring States Period from the 5th century BCE to 221 BCE, the states of Qin, Wei, Zhao, Qi, Yan and Zhongshan all constructed extensive fortifications to defend their own borders. Built to withstand the attack of small arms such as swords and spears, these walls were made mostly by stamping earth and gravel between board frames.
Qin Shi Huang conquered all opposing states and unified China in 221 BCE, establishing the Qin Dynasty. Intending to impose centralized rule and prevent the resurgence of feudal lords, he ordered the destruction of the wall sections that divided his empire along the former state borders. To protect the empire against intrusions by the Xiongnu people from the north, he ordered the building of a new wall to connect the remaining fortifications along the empire’s new northern frontier. Transporting the large quantity of materials required for construction was difficult, so builders always tried to use local resources. Stones from the mountains were used over mountain ranges, while rammed earth was used for construction in the plains. There are no surviving historical records indicating the exact length and course of the Qin Dynasty walls. Most of the ancient walls have eroded away over the centuries, and very few sections remain today. The human cost of the construction is unknown, but it has been estimated by some authors that hundreds of thousands, if not up to a million, workers died building the Qin wall. Later, the Han, Sui, and Northern dynasties all repaired, rebuilt, or expanded sections of the Great Wall at great cost to defend themselves against northern invaders. The Tang and Song Dynasties did not build any walls in the region. The Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties, who ruled Northern China throughout most of the 10-13th centuries, had their original power bases north of the Great Wall proper; accordingly, they would have no need throughout most of their history to build a wall along this line. The Liao carried out limited repair of the Great Wall in a few areas, however the Jin did construct defensive walls in the 12th century, but those were located much to the north of the Great Wall as we know it, within today’s Inner and Outer Mongolia.
The Great Wall concept was revived again during the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century, and following the Ming army’s defeat by the Oirats in the Battle of Tumu in 1449. The Ming had failed to gain a clear upper hand over the Manchurian and Mongolian tribes after successive battles, and the long-drawn conflict was taking a toll on the empire. The Ming adopted a new strategy to keep the nomadic tribes out by constructing walls along the northern border of China. Acknowledging the Mongol control established in the Ordos Desert, the wall followed the desert’s southern edge instead of incorporating the bend of the Huang He.
Unlike the earlier Qin fortifications, the Ming construction was stronger and more elaborate due to the use of bricks and stone instead of rammed earth. As Mongol raids continued periodically over the years, the Ming devoted considerable resources to repair and reinforce the walls. Sections near the Ming capital of Beijing were especially strong.
During the 1440s–1460s, the Ming also built a so-called “Liaodong Wall”. Similar in function to the Great Wall (whose extension, in a sense, it was), but more basic in construction, the Liaodong Wall enclosed the agricultural heartland of the Liaodong province, protecting it against potential incursions by Jurched-Mongol Oriyanghan from the northwest and the Jianzhou Jurchens from the north. While stones and tiles were used in some parts of the Liaodong Wall, most of it was in fact simply an earth dike with moats on both sides.
Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall helped defend the empire against the Manchu invasions that began around 1600. Even after the loss of all of Liaodong, the Ming army under the command of Yuan Chonghuan held off the Manchus at the heavily fortified Shanhaiguan pass, preventing the Manchus from entering the Chinese heartland. The Manchus were finally able to cross the Great Wall in 1644, after Beijing had fallen to Li Zicheng’s rebels, and the gates at Shanhaiguan were opened by the commanding Ming general Wu Sangui, who hoped to use the Manchus to expel the rebels from Beijing. The Manchus quickly seized Beijing, and defeated both the rebel-founded Shun Dynasty and the remaining Ming resistance, establishing the Qing Dynasty rule over all of China.
In 2009, an additional 290 km (180 mi) of previously undetected portions of the wall, built during the Ming Dynasty, were discovered. The newly discovered sections range from the Hushan mountains in the northern Liaoning province, to Jiayuguan in western Gansu province. The sections had been submerged over time by sandstorms which moved across the arid region.
Under Qing rule, China’s borders extended beyond the walls and Mongolia was annexed into the empire, so construction and repairs on the Great Wall were discontinued. On the other hand, the so-called Willow Palisade, following a line similar to that of the Ming Liaodong Wall, was constructed by the Qing rulers in Manchuria. Its purpose, however, was not defense but rather migration control.
The North African traveler Ibn Battuta, who was in Guangzhou ca. 1346, inquired among the local Muslims about the wall that, according to the Qur’an, Dhul-Qarnayn had built to contain Gog and Magog. Ibn Battuta reported that the wall was “sixty days’ travel” from the city of Zeitun (Quanzhou); Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb noted Ibn Battuta has confused the Great Wall of China with that built by Dhul-Qarnayn. This indicated that Arabs may have heard about China’s Great Wall during earlier periods of China’s history, and associated it with the Gog and Magog wall of the Qur’an. But, in any event, no one of Ibn Battuta’s Guangzhou interlocutors had seen the wall or knew anyone who had seen it, which implies that by the late Yuan the existence of the Great Wall was not in the people’s living memory, at least not in the Muslim communities in Guangzhou.
Soon after Europeans reached the Ming China in the early 16th century, accounts of the Great Wall started to circulate in Europe, even though no European was to see it with his own eyes for another century. Possibly the earliest description of the wall, and its significance for the defense of the country against the “Tartars” (i.e. Mongols), may be the one contained in the Third Década of João de Barros’ Asia (published 1563). Interestingly, Barros himself did not travel to Asia, but was able to use Chinese books brought to Lisbon by Portuguese traders. One of the earliest records of a Western traveler entering China via a Great Wall pass (Jiayuguan, in this case) may be that of the Portuguese Jesuit brother Bento de Góis, who had reached China’s north-western gate from India in 1605.
Before the use of bricks, the Great Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones, and wood. During the Ming Dynasty, however, bricks were heavily used in many areas of the wall, as were materials such as tiles, lime, and stone. The size and weight of the bricks made them easier to work with than earth and stone, so construction quickened. Additionally, bricks could bear more weight and endure better than rammed earth. Stone can hold under its own weight better than brick, but is more difficult to use. Consequently, stones cut in rectangular shapes were used for the foundation, inner and outer brims, and gateways of the wall. Battlements line the uppermost portion of the vast majority of the wall, with defensive gaps a little over 30 cm (12 in) tall, and about 23 cm (9.1 in) wide.
One of the earliest known references to this myth appears in a letter written in 1754 by the English antiquary William Stukeley. Stukeley wrote that, “This mighty wall of four score miles in length (Hadrian’s Wall) is only exceeded by the Chinese Wall, which makes a considerable figure upon the terrestrial globe, and may be discerned at the moon”. The claim was also mentioned by Henry Norman in 1895 where he states “besides its age it enjoys the reputation of being the only work of human hands on the globe visible from the moon”. The issue of “canals” on Mars was prominent in the late 19th century and may have led to the belief that long, thin objects were visible from space. The claim that the Great Wall is visible also appears in 1932’s Ripley’s Believe it or Not stripand in Richard Halliburton’s 1938 book Second Book of Marvels.
The claim the Great Wall is visible has been debunked many times, but is still ingrained in popular culture. The wall is a maximum 9.1 m (30 ft) wide, and is about the same color as the soil surrounding it. Based on the optics of resolving power (distance versus the width of the iris: a few millimeters for the human eye, meters for large telescopes) only an object of reasonable contrast to its surroundings which is 70 mi (110 km) or more in diameter (1 arc-minute) would be visible to the unaided eye from the moon, whose average distance from Earth is 384,393 km (238,851 mi). The apparent width of the Great Wall from the moon is the same as that of a human hair viewed from 2 miles (3.2 km) away. To see the wall from the moon would require spatial resolution 17,000 times better than normal (20/20) vision. Unsurprisingly, no lunar astronaut has ever claimed to have seen the Great Wall from the moon.
A more controversial question is whether the Wall is visible from low earth orbit (an altitude of as little as 100 miles (160 km)). NASA claims that it is barely visible, and only under nearly perfect conditions; it is no more conspicuous than many other man-made objects. Other authors have argued that due to limitations of the optics of the eye and the spacing of photoreceptors on the retina, it is impossible to see the wall with the naked eye, even from low orbit, and would require visual acuity of 20/3 (7.7 times better than normal). Astronaut William Pogue thought he had seen it from Skylab but discovered he was actually looking at the Grand Canal of China near Beijing. He spotted the Great Wall with binoculars, but said that “it wasn’t visible to the unaided eye.” U.S. Senator Jake Garn claimed to be able to see the Great Wall with the naked eye from a space shuttle orbit in the early 1980s, but his claim has been disputed by several U.S. astronauts. Veteran U.S. astronaut Gene Cernan has stated: “At Earth orbit of 100 miles (160 km) to 200 miles (320 km) high, the Great Wall of China is, indeed, visible to the naked eye.” Ed Lu, Expedition 7 Science Officer aboard the International Space Station, adds that, “it’s less visible than a lot of other objects. And you have to know where to look.”
In 2001, Neil Armstrong stated about the view from Apollo 11: “I do not believe that, at least with my eyes, there would be any man-made object that I could see. I have not yet found somebody who has told me they’ve seen the Wall of China from Earth orbit. …I’ve asked various people, particularly Shuttle guys, that have been many orbits around China in the daytime, and the ones I’ve talked to didn’t see it”.
In October 2003, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei stated that he had not been able to see the Great Wall of China. In response, the European Space Agency (ESA) issued a press release reporting that from an orbit between 160 and 320 km, the Great Wall is visible to the naked eye. In an attempt to further clarify things, the ESA published a picture of a part of the “Great Wall” photographed from Space. However, in a press release a week later (no longer available in the ESA’s website), they acknowledged that the “Great Wall” in the picture was actually a river.
Leroy Chiao, a Chinese-American astronaut, took a photograph from the International Space Station that shows the wall. It was so indistinct that the photographer was not certain he had actually captured it. Based on the photograph, the China Daily later reported that the Great Wall can be seen from space with the naked eye, under favorable viewing conditions, if one knows exactly where to look. However, the resolution of a camera can be much higher than the human visual system, and the optics much better, rendering photographic evidence irrelevant to the issue of whether it is visible to the naked eye.